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Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Character Development Via Pet Peeve

Charts and graphs and lists of questions are great ways to develop your characters, and later in the week, Priscilla Kissinger will share some fantastic interview questions with you. But today, I want to demonstrate how you can use people, places, or things that irritate you to add dimension to the characters who populate your stories.

One piece of writing advice that has stuck with me is that a part of you has to come through on the page. I took that “write what you know” suggestion to heart when it came to developing characters, and the greatest compliment I continue to receive with my published short stories is that the characters seem real. I believe they feel realistic to readers because I shade them with things that irritate me, my pet peeves, if you will. Adding irksome characteristics to your secondary characters, heroes, or villains can not only enliven your prose, it can provide a lot of humor, and, as an added bonus, work these irritations out of your system.

Think about how a family member or friend annoys you. Maybe one of your friends speaks in clichéd catch phrases (examples: “the whole nine yards,” “I’m done”). Or perhaps, your mother, like mine, tells you to wear lipstick—frequently. My mother’s top three reasons? I look pale without it, lipgloss doesn’t equal lipstick, and a lady should never go out in public without a little slick of Wild Irish Rose on her mouth and a pat of powder on her nose. My mother (I do love her, just wanted to make that clear) also, on occasion, when she comes to visit, has the habit of replacing items in my house that she doesn’t like—without asking. These things have included kitchen placemats, bedroom pillows, and once, and I swear this is true, the toilet seat in one of my bathrooms. So I took these traits that irked me, beefed them up a bit, and added a few other behaviors that my mother doesn’t have to create Aunt Fanny, a character in “A Very Mossy Christmas.” Another one of my mother’s traits that grated on my nerves a while back (before she got on the exercise wagon and the Weight Watchers program) was that she addressed her high cholesterol problem by taking medication and continuing to eat whatever she wanted. I gave that little trait to one of the Quinlan sisters in “Resolutionary War” in A Day in Mossy Creek. Both Fanny and Spiva were secondary characters, and my heroines were irritated by these behaviors. One caveat, do get permission from the family member or friend first and explain that you are creating an amalgam. Ensure that the character you’re imbuing is different in many, many other ways.

I have not as yet used a place, but I have been gathering material for future use. One place that continues to irritate me is the grocery store. I like to have food in my house, but I hate to spend the time shopping for it. I despise long lines at the check out, and I loathe bagging my own groceries because the manager hasn’t figured out what time of the day is busiest. Another place that irritates me is a restaurant that won’t take reservations. I could go on, but I think you get the picture. Put a character in these sorts of irritating situations and your reader will think "me, too."

Items that irritate can be car keys or glasses that you can’t find when you need to leave the house, computers that freeze up, and Christmas lights. Yes, Christmas lights. I fully admit to having issues with icicle lights that dangle year round. I lent that peeve to my heroine Patty Campbell in “Blinded by the Lights”in A Day in Mossy Creek. Phobias can also provide great opportunities for character development. Take for example the television show Monk. The hero Monk is a former police detective struggling with his obsessive compulsive disorder and germ phobia; his idiosyncracies make him funny and a great detective. I took advantage of my own fear of clowns or coulrophobia and gave it to my heroine Julie Honeycut in “Be Mime”

What are your pet peeves? How can you use them to your advantage in developing your characters?

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At 11:07 AM, Blogger Terry McLaughlin said...

What a fun post, Maureen--and such a clever idea :-)!

I've borrowed quirks or habits from people and pets I know and added them to the characters in my books. Now I'll add peeves to my character resource list ;-).

At 11:19 AM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

There's an actual term for fear of clowns? Of course there is.

I LOVE making secondary characters annoying. In fact, for every supportive secondary character, I think I have one that's a total thorn in my protagonist's side.

That's a good point about general peeves and readers thinking, "Me too!" Especially if it's something that's not been dealt with a lot, but turns out to be pretty universal. Again, we're always looking for that, "Something familiar, while at the same time, completely unique!"

At 11:32 AM, Blogger Mo H said...

Glad you enjoyed it, Terry!

I love making secondary characters annoying, too, Esri. And I agree, we have to strike the right balance of familiar yet not cliched.

At 11:46 AM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

This is a fun post, Maureen. My poor mom has a few funny habits, like when she tells everyone she meets our complete family history. Usually this neverending dialogue causes a serious traffic jam in the lines at the grocery store. She's also quick to tell us she is Pollyanna and yet we can't take her to a restaurant without having her send her food back or complain about the service. Ha! And yes, we love her dearly! I'm sure my kids could list a few habits of mine, too...

I just saw a movie with Clive Owen and many things bothered him like when a guy in a restaurant is sucking that last sip of soda through a straw, making that gurgling bubbly sound that drives many people crazy. :) As far as his character goes, his trait of finding many things annoying did make me smile.

At 12:31 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

I think it is important to give characters special quirks or traits that help them identify with the characters. And if the trait is something that they must overcome in order to save the day, so much the better. I'm thinking of Indiana Jones's fear of snakes, as an example.

When the quirks work into the plot, that's the very best, I think. If a character is afraid of snakes and never encounters one, or only encounters one once, then it isn't as satisfying.


At 1:55 PM, Blogger Patricia W. said...

I have to disagree with Diane. It's never necessary to encounter or overcome a fear of reptiles! :)

But I do like to use my personal pet peeves in my characters. I think Esri hit it on the head. Familiar but unique. And avoid common stereotypes.

At 2:50 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

hahaha, Patricia! I'm not afraid of cute little chameleons...Or the Geico Gecko...but I didn't go to see the Snakes On A Plane movie. (what a great title, by the way. Snakes On A Plane says it all)

At 9:03 PM, Blogger doglady said...

This post was a hoot. And by the way, I bought my Mom ALL of the Mossy Creek books for Christmas and she loves them! If I can get her to turn them loose long enough I want to read them. She touts them to all of her friends.

I run the bakery in our local Wal-Mart and one of my pet peeves is people who call at the last minute to order their child's birthday cake! They call the morning of the party and expect to get the cake in two hours! They plan the party, send the invitations and wait until the last minute to order the cake???

I love characters with annoying quirks we can relate to, the kind where we think "Oh, I know somebody like that!"

My hero's two best friends both have quirks that make them annoying. One is the kind of person who gathers info on people, manipulates them and takes pleasure in stirring the pot. The other one is just oblivious and says whatever comes into his head - loudly - with no thought as to how it sounds.

Come on, ladies. Reptiles aren't that bad. I had a large collection of snakes, lizards and tortoises as pets for years. Used to do educational programs with them. My last snake, a burmese python named Big Mama, passed away at the age of 26. I raised her from a hatchling to a 13 foot, 100 plus pound snake. After her death I was reptileless and decided not to acquire any more. They are very labor intensive. My nephews have the tortoises as they would eventually become their owners. Tortoises are one of the few pets that, if taken care of properly, will definitely outlive you!

Hmm, I wonder if I could get away with a Regency heroine who likes snakes?

At 11:25 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Dogs AND Reptiles???????

At 8:13 AM, Blogger doglady said...

ROFLMAO O Divine One!!! Just dogs and cats now, but my house used to be a veritable zoo! Of course I never lacked for students who wanted to come by and help out. Since I got out of the teaching business and my reptiles thinned out due to old age (I had an iguana who lived to be 32!)I decided not to acquire any more because of the work involved. Now I just collect books! They are easier to feed and you don't have to clean up after them!

At 9:26 AM, Blogger Mo H said...

My mom does the whole sending back food thing, too! First time she met my husband, we went to dinner and she did that. It was so embarrassing. I'll have to see that Clive Owen movie.

At 9:29 AM, Blogger Mo H said...

You are so right that if the quirks play into the plot it makes for a great story. I mentioned "Monk" in my blog, and his character is a perfect example of this quirk affecting the plot, too. Glad to know I'm not the only noodler with clown issues.

At 9:30 AM, Blogger Mo H said...

Since you use them in your writing are you willing to share what these peeves are? I'm curious!

At 9:34 AM, Blogger Mo H said...

So glad your mom loves the Mossy Creek series. I feel privileged to be a part of Mossy Creek. And I can definitely understand about last minute birthday cake orders getting on your last nerve. It would mine. Since you are a former teacher, as I am, I'll share another peeve--students who would rather put time and effort into extra credit than to do the work assigned. I didn't offer extra credit.

At 10:34 AM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

Doglady: I like reptiles! Also spiders and rats. Congrats on your long-lived pets! Clearly you really knew how to take care of them (insert green/scaly thumb joke here). I'm curious about something... What are the signs of affection in snakes and lizards? Or do they not relate to humans that way?

At 9:05 PM, Blogger doglady said...

Mo h, ditto on the students and extra credit. Definitely made my teeth grind.

Esri, I don't know about affection, but people often commented that my large lizards especially would act up when other people held them, but were as calm as sleeping babies when I held them. As reptiles are primarily creatures of smell and heat sensitivity they are capable of identifying people by scent and body temp. My snakes especially did better at the vet's if I handled them. My 13 foot python, Big Mama, had a distinct aversion to people who had been drinking for some reason. The only times I ever saw her agitated was when people who had been drinking touched or held her. So much so that I finally said "If you have been drinking, don't mess with Big Mama." A very discerning lady. My 6 foot iguana, Sigmund, followed me around like a dog and insisted on sitting in my lap most of the time. My big monitor lizards preferred my shoulder. I had pet tarantulas as well. Unfortunately rats and mice at my house were food.

At 8:14 AM, Blogger Dianna Love Snell said...

Maureen -

Great post. Wish I could have gotten on to visit, but that's why you and Diane ended up posting my blog - many, many thanks again.

It's no wonder your Mossy Creek stories are so witty. Loved your blog and your secondary characters.



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